First Impressions: Real life with the Zonbu Laptop Review

Zonbu LaptopI’ve had the Zonbu laptop for a few days now so I wanted to share my initial impressions and do a review.

I will be doing an additional piece when the Asus 3e laptop and entry level Acer arrive.

In the mean time, let’s take a look at the latest addition to the Zonbu line-up…

The Specs

According to the Zonbu website, the basic specifications of the unit are:

  • Processor: 1.5GHz, VIA C7-M Intel-compatible, low energy use
  • Display: 15.4″ WXGA Widescreen (1440 x 900) and VGA output
  • Memory: 512MB
  • Hard Disk local storage: 60GB (58GB for your data)
  • Optical Drive: DVD-ROM/CD-RW
  • Graphics: VIA Chrome9 HC IGP (64MB shared memory, 128MB maximum)
  • Audio: built-in speaker, microphone and headphone ports
  • 3 USB 2.0 ports
  • Ethernet: 10/100 Mbps built-in – broadband ready
  • Wifi: Built-in 802.11b/g
  • Power Supply: 65W AC-DC Adapter, 15W average power usage
  • Battery: Rechargeable Lithium-Ion, 2h30 to 3h, depending on usage
  • Measurements: 14.1″ x 10.7″ x 1.5″ (35.8cm x 27.2cm x 3.8cm)
  • Weight: 5.3lbs (2.4kg)

Now, let’s crack open the box…

Judging a book by its cover

The packaging was fairly typical of a laptop, a small beige box with a carrying handle. Both the Zonbu and Everex logo were present on the box. Inside the box was the laptop unit, the battery and a charger, as well as some quick start notes. There was no ethernet cable, or any other accessories in the box.

Strangely, the power connector is on the right hand side near the back, right next to the ethernet port. This created an immediate problem whereby I had to twirl the power connector out of the way to insert the Ethernet cable. A strange design flaw for a machine that needs a network to function. The jacks need to be seperated – don’t make it hard to hook up the two most important cables.

On the back are two USB ports, with one more mid way down the right hand side. The VGA D-SUB connection is on the back next to the USB ports. The audio jacks are near the front on the right hand side and the single mono speaker (mono? really? check the sound on the entry Acer laptop) is on the upper left keyboard surface of the laptop. The CD-RW/DVD drive take up the bulk of the left side. There is a plastic cover over the port location for the telephone modem, which is not included on the Zonbu model.

When I drew the laptop out of the box, I was immediately struck by the tactile feel and (lack of) visual appeal of the housing. I have a high end HP laptop (a tx1000z) at work and it has an exceptional finish. I couldn’t expect the same on a sub $500 unit, but I did expect it to compare well with the look and feel of the sub $500 Acer units. I’m disappointed to say that it doesn’t.

The plastics used and the overall feel and visual presence of the laptop is decidedly “low end” and “cheap”. This was a surprise and a disapointment as I think the Zonbu desktop unit is both attractive and has a high end look and feel.

Zonbu and Everex would do well to benchmark the materials against the entry level Acer I pointed out in a previous post. It simply has a richer, more professional look and feel. I would even say the Acer is stylish. The Zonbu is not.

Laptops are personal and almost like jewelry to many users. It has got to look good and feel right. This can not be over stated and improving this does not have to be expensive.

Oh, and the laptop is big. But most 15.4″ units are.

It’s light and easy to move around but it is a bit on the large side. Oh, and as I write this, the heatsink is reminding my leg that it can get quite hot on the lap. However, that is not an issue unique to the Zonbu; all modern laptops I’ve used can get incomfortably warm on the lap.

Can the user experience overcome the humble clothes? Let’s see…

The man behind the curtain

Before I could finish writing and posting this article, my Zonbu laptop (at my bidding) discovered and downloaded the latest release from the Zonbu servers. This provided number of enhancements and bug fixes, including addressing some of the items I was going to highlight. Cool.

I can’t speak more highly of the benefits of having some really hard core Linux geeks taking care of things behind the curtain. My career has ben in teleoms and tech, and the IT department reports through to me, so I’m no stranger to taking care of PCs and networks. But, I have to be honest, I LOVE the fact that someone else takes care of the Zonbu OS for me. Its really satisfying to have your Zonbu tell you an update has been installed and please reboot. I’ve never had a material problem with an update, and the new features, bug fixes and other goodies have consistently improved my desktop experience. These guys just get it.

Whether or not they get how to sell it is another discussion for other posts, but the product has some real strength behind it.

Let’s take a look at the new laptop…

Booting the Zonbu Laptop

After a brief BIOS bootsplash, I was greeted with the familiar Zonbu start-up progress screen. Interestingly, I noted that that laptop was running Zonbu OS 7.1031, which is actually newer than the official release currently outlined on the Zonbu website. A few added goodies are in 7.1031 that we’ll get to later on.

Once I booted the machine, the network wizard popped up and walked me through the basic connectivity tests. I went wired to start with, although the WiFi appeared to be working fine as well. I had a problem logging in and got the “Connection to storage servers failed, please try again” message. I rebooted the machine and I was able to login without any more problems. Not sure what happened there, but it hasn’t occured again.

So it’s your first time?

The attractive Zonbu welcome screen looked great on the laptop, as did the desktop once I logged in. The screen is bright and clear, text is nice and sharp. It is a pleasure to work on the Zonbu from a visual perspective. The 1440×900 screen gives a lot of real estate. In fact, with the cost of LCD panel monitors still hovering around $150 or more, the Zonbu is a good deal for the display savings alone.

One of my pet peeves in the past was that the Zonbu doesn’t offer a welcome wizard/introduction on first boot. That still has not been addressed. There was no welcome wizard to configure the timezone or show me the basics of the system. Aymeric (from Zonbu) loves to talk about how the Zonbu plays all the video types you can throw at it. How about a video introduction?

The timezone was set to US Pacific, so I adjusted it o my local and corrected the clock time. It isn’t clear to me if the Zonbu uses the Network Time Protocol (NTP), but if it doesn’t, it should, to keep the clock in sync and avoid any clock drift.

Hello there, who are you?

I noticed a new icon on my desktop, a hard drive with a globe, labeled “Public Folder”. Not entirely sure how it would work, I right clicked on it and looked for an About entry. There wasn’t one. It’s a small detail but it would be good if the default public directory had a “readme” file or “welcome” text file with the details of how to make it work. I knew it was coming and I have no idea how a friend would access it.

Customizing the Desktop

My next move was to adjust down the icons sizes. This is more personal preference, but since the laptop has a fixed screen resolution, it may be worthwhile to do it by default. I set the icons, start bar, and font all to small. I selected a nice wide-screen wallpaper from the default options and then went about finishing my customizations.

I added the battery status monitor to the system tray (this should be on by default on the laptop), as well as the WiFi strength indicator (this should also be on when the WiFi is in use). I also added the comical volume control whose icon is 4x the size of the actual adjustment bar, and which is hard to use, as I’ve stated before. Ubuntu has much better panel controls, both in size and ease of use. I think this area needs some more work and benchmarking. There isn’t any good reason to get this little stuff wrong, especially when so much is great about the Zonbu OS.

LaptopTray

Applications & New Additions

As I sat down to review the laptop, and started making notes, I realized I had a small problem. If the laptop was well executed, which I expected it would (and it is), then there isn’t all that much to talk about… The Zonbu OS is a fixed config that I don’t need to worry about. I know what applications will be included, I know where they are installed and how to access them. I have a good idea of the performance and the areas for improvement. If anything, I was going to have an anti-climatic experience, even though that is a positive in this case. And I was right… Everything just worked (essentially) out of the box.

I’ve written extensively about the application selections, what I love and where the short comings are. Let’s take a look at how it plays out on the Zonbu Laptop.

Apps – The Good

Firefox is currenty 2.0.0.9 (I expect 2.0.0.11 will be pushed any day now [I stand corrected, 2.0.0.10 was pushed during this review]), and has the laptop has all the customizations I love on my desktop unit. The icon sizes, fonts and default plug-ins are well done. There is a great FTP client included (FireFTP), as all as a nice preview function that shows snapshots of all the open tabs. Java is also included.

Most importantly, Flash playback is included as is extensive media support. I haven’t found a web site I can’t play content back on natively. Sometimes there are performance problems, which I’ll talk about later, but those have more to do with the hardware than the software. All in all, the web experinece is extremely well done on the Zonbu.

The (openoffice.org) office stack is present and relatively current. As always, I’ve been able to open the myriad of office related attachments I get in my work email, and I’ve even authored a few things without any trouble. I haven’t yet set up my HP laser printer, but that is on my list to-do. Based on the info on the HP open source driver website, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Much to my pleasure and surprise, they have included the Skype 2.0 beta in this release. That means that my web cam (Logitech QuickCam 4000) should work. Incidentally, the Asus 3e has a built-in webcam and I think the Zonbu should too. Its cheap and high emotional value. Those are easy decisions.

The kernel detected the camera properly and I can select it in the video configuration in Skype, but I never get an image. Having not used the Skype beta on any other distribution, I don’t want to lay the blame only on Zonbu. That being said, Logitech is the leader in the camera space and if video support for Skype is going to be included, Logitech QuickCams need to work out of the box. [While the update stated that web cam support was experimental, I was still hopeful. No luck this time around, my web cam is still detected but produces nothing but a black screen in Skype’s video config menu].

The games are great (and more extensive than I remember) and the multi-media applications, for managing photos, music and video playback are all very well done. I won’t wax poetic on them here, but they are F-Spot, Banshee and Mplayer. You can read detailed reviews of each on the ‘Net.

There is a handy new tool on the System menu, allowing you to check for, and initiate Zonbu system updates. This is an improvement from the old system where the upgrades “magically” took place but occasionally had hiccups or delays. Sometimes we like to be asked, or to be able to ask. Kudos to Zonbu for adding this. [This was how I forced the update to the latest release 7.1049]

The Bad

I’m disappointed that the main IM client is significantly behind the current release. The one included in the Zonbu is still GAIM 2.0.0beta6. GAIM is now known as Pidgin and the current release (although still lacking web cam support) is 2.3.0. This needs to be updated, but I do love the look and feel Zonbu has on GAIM and I hope they can bring that forward. I was a big MSN user and it has a nice MSN-ish feel.

The Gimp is a fine photo editor, although badly in need of an upgrade to 2.4 which has been out for quite a while (although it only went final in November). The lack of font support in Gimp is a niggle but one I’m hoping will be corrected with the move to 2.4. This is a fairly high priority item, in my opinion.

Support for the amazing Rhapsody.com online music service is still lacking. I recently purchased an iriver Clix with Rhapsody support, and I can honestly say this combination is a game-changing development for the music business. I pay a small monthly subscription fee and can transfer over 1 Million songs from my Rhapsody account to my portable player. More importantly, the music resides on the Rhapsody servers until I need it then it downloads it to the player. I can also access it from my work PC, my Vista PC (both natively with their app) or my Zonbu via a browser plug-in.

For an online device like the Zonbu, an online music service is an ideal match. Rhapsody already has a Linux client for the Nokia N8xx series tablets, so it does work on Linux. With the closed nature of the Zonbu, it would be feasible to incorporate any required DRM features in to the kernel, without exposing them publicly. If Zonbu can get Rhapsody on the desktop, I think it will provide a huge improvement in the value of the Zonbu for music lovers. Heck, I’d buy one just to have in the living room, hooked up to a flat panel TV and the stereo.

Despite the latest update claiming that I could tap on the touchpad on the laptop to cause a “click” response, it still isn’t working. I should be able to tap or double tap to simulate click and double click. This is pretty standard fare stuff, and Zonbu appears to be aware of it as they believe it is fixed, but at least on my unit, I still can only navigate with the pad. No clicking for me

Suggestions

This isn’t just a laptop suggestion, but when I use CTRL-ALT-BACKSPACE to force a restart at the X login screen, it should re-detect my monitor. By way of reference, I discovered Ubuntu does this, and I think if they change the start-up ordering on the Zonbu, it would do the same.

This is handy if you are switching monitors around, and it allows the system to re-read the monitor config without having to wait for a full reboot. As I run my Zonbu on a KVM (which I think many tech savvy adopters may do), if I don’t have my Zonbu as the active device at boot I get a lowly 1024×768 res that my KVM reports. My native res is now 1680×1050 on a gorgeous Samsung 22″ widescreen panel. I can’t change an incorrectly detected monitor within the Zonbu desktop, I need to reboot. Don’t make me do that. It’s not cool.

I was having an isue with the wireless resetting to a neighbors access point on reboots, but that seems to have stopped happening [even pre-update] so it may have been something I did inadvertently. Even so, further refining the WiFi support is key for the laptop market (as is allowing some basic VPN support). With strong WiFi support as well as VPN support, I’m tempted to start replacing field laptops for non-techie staff with Zonbu laptops.

The low end of the corporate market could prove to be keen adopters of the Zonbu within the next few months of the release cycle. It is very appealing to me as an IT executive to be able to take away desktops that people keep breaking and drop in low power Zonbu units. Especially if most of the internal apps are web based.

Areas for Improvement

Flash based video is rapidly becoming the standard on the web. Everything from YouTube to TheStreet.com and every local, regional and national news site and TV station has flash based video, as do many corporate sites. I’m not necessarily happy about it, but it is clearly where things are going, especially with Flash adding MPEG4 support.

There are still serious performance problems playing back embedded flash video on the Zonbu hardware. Some of it appears to be driver issues and some of it appears to be CPU firepower. Not cool.

Zonbu has done a lot of work to make YouTube.com work smoothly, but the answer isn’t to do site by site changes. My single biggest gripe about the Zonbu is that I don’t get consistent (and not even always watchable) flash video performance. This has to be a top priority.

I feel that Zonbu needs to embrace either Nvidia or ATI ((Or even Intel)). Nvidia is known for its excellent Linux driver support. Zonbu need to get a more powerful graphics/video chipset inside it’s hardware. I realize Zonbu is tightly aligned with Via, but the raw truth is that the box just is not handling the flash video revolution that the web is rapidly embracing.

Zonbu may be able to manage this with software changes, or aggressive driver development, but you have to ask whether those efforts are time & money well spent when Nvidia has already figured this out?

Conclusion

My confidence in the Zonbu business model has improved dramatically since I first received my Zonbu desktop.

The company has consistently delivered new releases, fixing bugs, enhancing the system and updating the key software packages. None of the updates have broken anything on my system and Zonbu has listened to the public feedback and made changes and adjustments to continue to improve and refine the overall experience for the end-user. I was skeptical about their ability to keep up the pace and handle things smoothly, but so far they have exceeded my high expectations.

This “personal geek” service, who handles all the hot-rodding and customization of your desktop is the most valuable part of the Zonbu business model, and I think one of the least understood or least appreciated aspects. After four months of getting regular, smooth updates – I can honestly say it is something you should experience.

I’m seriously considering recommending these to our broadband user base, as a lot of users have constant problems trying to keep their Windows PC running properly. If you don’t want the hassle, let Zonbu take care of it for you.

I like the Zonbu laptop for it’s “almost all-in-one” specifications. If it had a webcam I would say it would be close to perfect as an entry level hardware platform. That being said, I remain skeptical about the decision to continue with the Via processor. I think the ULV Intel processors can provide greater firepower at reasonably low power consumption, and they offer the ability to use the better supported Intel integrated graphics chips that out perform the Via graphics chip Zonbu is struggling with.

The box would definitely benefit (in both desktop and laptop forms) from more power and 1 Gig of memory.

As a startup you have to pick your battles, and I do worry about Zonbu taking too many arrows in its back trying to address issues that are really internal Via issues.

I think that time may be better spent on customer facing improvements. Of course, and I’ll post more on this later, the exit opportunity for Zonbu may to be absorbed in to Via… So you can understand why they are sticking with Via for now. Follow the money, as I’ve said.

My other major gripe is that the laptop device looks and feels cheap. But wait, you say, it is affordable – so why complain?

I bring it up because I think the market is not nearly as price sensitive as people like to claim. A small investment in higher quality materials that provide a more pleasurable tactile and visual experiences, goes a long way to enhance to prestiege of the brand and the joy of using the device.

Laptops are very personal devices that enjoy a lot of touch from the end user. No one wants to inadvertently advertise to their friends that they went “cheap” on the device, nor do they want to feel like “ugh, I don’t like this case” when they use it every day.

Overall, I give the Zonbu laptop an 8.5 out of 10.

The major things holding it back are the need for better flash video performance and some key application updates as well as a rethink of the physical housing. These things will be addressed in the coming months and the device will become indispensable at the current price point.

If you’re curious, the entry point is relatively low – order one. You won’t regret it.

-Mr. Zonbu

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10 Responses to First Impressions: Real life with the Zonbu Laptop Review

  1. Robin says:

    Great review Mr Zonbu. I have a couple more questions:

    * Is the LCD backlit with LEDs?
    * How often does the fan come on?
    * Is the fan noisy?
    * Is the disk noisy?

    thanks in anticipation

  2. mrzonbu says:

    Hi Robin,

    1) I’m not sure of the presence of LEDs in the LCD. It appears to be a typical laptop LCD to my eyes.

    2) I’ll have to pay more attention on the fan, but it came on at regular intervales. I wasn’t struck but it being particularly quiet or the fan not kicking in, although its not nearly as bad as my main work laptop, an HP with an AMD TUrion X2. Its fan seems to always be on, and can be far too loud. So the Zonbu is an improvement on a relative basis.

    3) Um, the fan is a bit noisey but with a laptop you’ve got a small fan to circulate a lot of air so it runs faster and makes more noise. I would say its typical of a low end laptop fan.

    4) No, the disk does not appear to be noisy at all.

    Hope that helps. If you’re considering one, I can say there are no significant reasons not to grab one. The desktop experience is very good and the combination of the hardware, extra storage, optical drive and portability is very compelling.

    -Mr. Zonbu

  3. whootowl says:

    Thanks for the review, well done. You make a number of good points. It is unfortunate that the laptop exudes “cheapness”. I agree with your weighting of this criterium. As young as Zonbu is, the company can ill afford to establish the wrong image. The Everex machines should remain with Walmart.

    It will be interesting to read your update once you have reviewed the EeePC (Intel-based). It is my understanding that the EeePC does not exude cheapness. Will its ability to process the latest Flash video streams exceed that of the Zonbu? Web surfing and email are my primary apps for the Zonbu. Whereas the web is increasingly intertwined with streaming video, it would be a pain to switch over to the 500-watt monster PC each time I come across a video feature I wish to watch.

  4. Robin says:

    Thanks for the feedback Mr Zonbu, supeerb as always. My wife is very jealous of my Zonbu and when her current Inspiron 6000 expires she has said she would like one. The problem is that I would have to buy a screen and a keyboard. Having said that I am in love with the silent Zonbox.

    I am typing this on my EeePC – now THAT is a quiet laptop.

  5. […] I present  a random sampling of quotes from email and other reviews along with my comments. Mr. Zonbu says: "The company has consistently delivered new releases, fixing bugs, enhancing the system […]

  6. shagbag says:

    Amen to being rid of VIA hardware.

    I’ve had 3 VIA boxes over the past 4 years (a Zonbox included) and each and every one of them has been held back by VIA’s seemingly arrogant non-support for linux – particularly graphics. VIA does provide proprietary graphics driver, yes, but they don’t work properly. Point this out to VIA and you’ll get no response back. Nothing. If it wasn’t for the Openchrome project, we’d all be done for. If you don’t believe me spend some time on the linux forum at VIA Arena and get a feel for the desparation of VIA owners.

    That said, the ZonbuOS is a great distribution and the fact that I have kept the Zonbox and sold my other VIA machines is testament to the benefits of the no-user-admin-required model of Zonbu.

  7. Fithisux says:

    I strongly believe that VIA and SIS should open source their graphics cards specs. The problem with flash playback is a driver issue. If the specs were released things should be much better. HW mpeg2 decoding can be done with VIA procs but if it is not enable (lack of spec) you end up with softdecoding which is inefficient. By the way if 3D was open sourced you could enjoy many free games on the zonbu. Furthermore an upgrade to 1GB would be pleasant. That said this laptop has full of potential if VIA allows it.

  8. mrzonbu says:

    Fithisux,

    I agree that the Via chipset/driver is part of the problem. I also agree that it should be open sourced, but I’m not convinced that is the only way forward forr Zonbu.

    Start-ups have scare resources and there is little value in waiting around for a problem that is a Via internal decision, to be solved in favor of Zonbu.

    What they should do is recognize that this is a serious barrier and move to a more open chipset so they can focus on what they do best. Zonbu is not a hardware company…

    I talked more about this in detail here: https://mrzonbu.wordpress.com/2007/12/18/half-the-puzzle-does-zonbu-have-the-software-right-and-the-hardware-wrong/

    -Mr. Zonbu

  9. Ruhayat says:

    Personally, I think 15-inch doesn’t quite fit into the philosophy of what Zonbu is trying to do (ie, saving energy). A smaller screen (but not as small as that of the Eee! Maybe 10 or 12 inches?) would have made a better fit, I think.

  10. kent says:

    i think Zonbu laptop uses processor: Intel-compatible, low energy use

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